Tuesday, November 13, 2012

40 Year Itch: The World Is A Ghetto


"The World is a Ghetto" may have sounded like one of the most political statements of the years, especially coming from a band whose members had still vivid memories of the Watts riots. But War's 1972 album, which would go on to be one of the best selling albums of 1973, is a celebration of ghetto life. To mark the 40th anniversary of The World Is a Ghetto, here's an interview with one of the band's founders, the harmonica wizard Lee Oskar


Lee Oskar, a founding member of the 70's pop-funk-jam band War, grew up in Denmark where he was given his first harmonica on his sixth birthday.

I remember the first time I breathed on it it would literally play me.
It would sound just like a symphony
I got hooked and that's where it all started

At 17, virtually pennyless, Lee moved to the US where his virtuosity on the harmonica and his easy-going nature eventually led to his friendship with Eric Burdon. Burdon had recently left The Animals and wanted to find a new band.

They drove around LA until they found a funk band in a dive bar. Together they would all form War. A strange name in the age of peace signs and flower power.

Everybody walks around saying "Peace!" and I always said "Peace? Nobody is at peace within themselves. The war within ourselves is what makes us be creative" and somebody pulled that out of my conversation and said "Hey let's call it WAR!" and that's how I remember it coming about.

From the very beginning War discovered the songs that worked best were the ones that came out of long improvisational jams. That suited Burdon just fine.

We would get on stage and we would basically improvise.
Eric might even set up a scenario "Ok guys, we're gonna go on a rocket ship and we're gonna fly to the moon and you're gonna be the captain"

In 1970, One of those jams landed at #3 on the U-S pop charts. It was called "Spill the Wine" and its chorus is one of those classics nobody knows the real words to.

You spill the wine and you take the pearl.
Not girl.
Pearl. --which was acid back in those days so he was talking about spill the wine.Take the pearl.

After Burdon left, the band played on. War scored more Top Ten hits. Among them, "Why Can't We Be Friends?", "Low Rider",The Cisco Kid, and "Slippin' Into Darkness". All of them emerging from jam sessions.

We were never successful when we tried to tell anybody what to play.
There would be an argument or fight or something.

The music stayed fresh even as the question the press asked Lee grew stale.He couldn't avoid being asked what was it like being the only white guy in a band of brothers.

I didn't have a hang up about stuff that I noticed a lot of people had
I remember one time somebody yelled "Hey Brother!" like that and then comes up close to look at me and asks "Are you a brother?"
So there were all these clichés between white and black and all that and I hated that frankly.I thought it was pretty arrogant or whatever.

That wasn't his only frustration.
Lee had trouble finding good harmonicas.

I would literally take every dime I had and buy every harmonica.
Hopefully I would find one out of ten that was good or something.
That was my passion: to be surrounded by my tools.

So Lee teamed up with a Japanese company to make Lee Oskar harmonicas.
How good are they?
Bluesman Junior Wells was buried with a tray of Oskar harmonicas.
Magic Dick of J Geils Band says "I just think, as a musical tool, they're a great musical tool so I can't think of a better endorsement to give them than that."

To listen to Lee play today is quite astonishing if you've never heard a harmonica played as a jazz instrument. He has, in his lifetime, expanded the possibilities of what conventional harmonicas can do.

But Lee isn't all business. He's always looking for a chance to play. Especially with other War veterans, who for legal reasons have to call themselves The Low Rider Band.

The integrity of the music and the jam band that we've always been
That's still there
That's the real deal
That's what The Low Rider Band is.
Nothing homogenized.

Lee can even be found jamming around Seattle these days.
That six year old who got a magical harmonica for his birthday still needs to find a way...to play.

I get grouchy if I don't eat.
I get grouchy if I don't play music.

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